PHILADELPHIA - For the uninitiated, Tuesday night's basketball game between Penn and Villanova provided a glimpse of what Big 5 basketball is all about.
Playing in front of a near-capacity crowd at The Palestra, it looked like the third-ranked Wildcats would walk away with a relatively easy victory over its inner-city rivals -- with just under 13 minutes remaining, they held a 21-point lead.
However, with the Quaker crowd growing ever louder, Penn climbed back into this contest, and with 1:17 left all the momentum seemed to be in the home team's favor. Ibrahim Jaaber knocked down a pair of free throws after an inexcusable Villanova technical foul, cutting the Wildcats' lead to just four.
At that point, Randy Foye showed why he is an All-America candidate. The guard nailed a tough shot in the lane to push Villanova's lead back up to six, and then came up with a steal from Jaaber at the other end that pretty much thwarted any more of Penn's chances. In the end, the 'Cats took a 62-55win back to the Main Line.
Villanova remains unbeaten at 7-0 with the win. Penn fell to 3-4, with all four losses coming to major-college programs (Colorado, Temple, No. 1 Duke, Villanova).
"It was nice we had a run in us," Penn head coach Fran Dunphy acknowledged afterward. "I'm proud of the guys for coming back. We had our run, we had our opportunities."
Until about the 10-minute mark, this game held to the form that was predicted. Villanova grabbed the lead early, bolstered it to double digits at points in the first half, and went into the locker room up 32-23 at the break. The Wildcats shot 48 percent from the field in the opening half, while giving Penn few decent looks and allowing the Quakers to shoot just 32 percent from the floorincluding 0-for-9 from three-point land.
Thegame had national implications due to Villanova's ranking, but it had all the earmarks of the neighborhood brawl that is typical of Big 5 action. The defense was intense, players flew after balls all over the court, and nothing came easy on either side.
The second half started slowly, but with 15 minutes remaining Villanova scratched together a 12-1 run that was started and finished by Allan Ray and helped along by a trey from Mike Nardi. That pushed the Wildcats' lead to 50-29, and seemed like it would be enough to keep Penn at bay.
Friedrich Ebede came back with a layup going into a timeout, however, and that seemed to stir the Quakers. Out of the break they got layups on consecutive possessions from Ebede and Brian Grandieri, and then Grandieri answered a pair of Ray free throws with another layin off a Mark Zoller pass to make the score 52-37.
Nova scored the next three points, all from the charity stripe, but then Penn reeled off 14 consecutive points as The Palestra got louder with every Quaker possession. The main cogs in the run were Ebede and Jaaber, who had been relatively quiet to that point in the contest as Villanova keyed heavily on him. When Jaaber knocked down a free throw with 1:56 left, the score was 55-51, Wildcats. He missed the second shot, though, and then fouled Ray on the rebound. Ray went down, hit both foul shots, and pushed Villanova's lead back up to six.
"We were trying to keep our heads in the game," said Jaaber afterward. "A few guys stepped up and they got us into it."
Penn turned it over on the next possession, but Villanova nearly made a huge mistake after that. The Wildcats called timeout, and then when play resumed they inbounded the ball with six players on the floor. That was a technical foul, and Jaaber calmly sank both foul shots to bring Penn back within four at 57-53 with 1:17 left.
Foye was able to make his shot, however, and then hit a pair of foul shots after making the steal on Jaaber in the open floor. That came with just 23 seconds left and effectively ended the game.
Jaaber finished as Penn's leading scorer despite his slow start, knocking down 14 points for his ninth-consecutive double-figure scoring game dating back to last season. He also had eight rebounds. The true surprise was Ebede -- starting in place of an injured Steve Danley, who sat this game out with a concussion, the senior came up with his first collegiate double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) as well as three assists and two steals in 38 minutes. Zoller had 12 points and eight boards, while Grandieri came off the bench to collect 10 points.
For Villanova, Ray finished with a game-high 19 points and six rebounds, while Foye had 16 points and Nardi added 14.
Penn is now off until December 29, when the Quakers face Hawaii in Honolulu. It will be Penn'ssecond trip to the Aloha State (the Quakers participated in the 1974 Rainbow Classic in Honolulu). Penn will also play BYU-Hawaii on Dec. 31 on the islands.